"He was the greatest guitar player I ever heard" -- Bob Dylan "[He] is music on two legs" -- Eric Clapton "You could put [him] with James Brown, and he'd be a motherfucker." -- Miles Davis
Wow. What other unknown axe-slinger could garner such praise from such music heavyweights? But this is only a sampling of comments of admiration and wonder for the guy once ranked No. 42 on Rolling Stone's list of Top 100 guitarists. It's the pride of Chicago, the guy who Muddy Waters considered a son, the Jew of the Blues...Michael Bloomfield!
The average fan of '60s/'70s rock might be forgiven for not knowing Bloomfield's name compared to his much more famous contemporaries, whose images are emblazoned on T-shirts, CD reissues, and college dorm posters.
The guitarist's career never took off like some others, though that seemed just fine with him. And a crippling drug addiction led to his 1981 overdose death at age 37, alone in the front seat of a car.
Bloomfield's longtime compadre, playing partner, and organist extraordinaire Al Kooper figured it was about time that more people know about his fellow frizzy-haired friend. And they get the chance with the Kooper-produced 3-CD/1-DVD box set From His Head to His Heart to His Hands: An Audio/Visual Scrapbook (Columbia/Legacy).
The set features solo cuts, tracks from his stints with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the groundbreaking Electric Flag, live material (including bits of various "Super Sessions" with Kooper) and later material, from a wide variety of sources and much of it rare or unreleased. It neatly encapsulates Bloomfield's musical legacy.
The DVD, Sweet Blues: A Film About Michael Bloomfield, is a documentary chock full of performance footage and testimonials from fellow musicians. An extensive biographical essay and liner notes complete the package.
Why Bloomfield was not a bigger deal has a lot to do with how own ambitions and what made him happy at any given time. That was him backing Bob Dylan when he "went electric" at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, and it's his unique lines that permeate "Like a Rolling Stone" and the album Highway 61 Revisited.
But when Dylan offered him the chance to join his band, Bloomfield demurred, preferring to stick with the more traditional electric blues of Butterfield's band. Yet with this group -- and other collaborations -- Bloomfield would drift in and out of partnerships and record contracts at whim. The mile-a-minute talker and thinker didn't seem as much concerned with popular acclaim as garnering the respect of the blues giants he idolized.
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In fact, the only reason that Al Kooper even called upon Stephen Stills to complete side two of 1968's influential Super Session jam record is that Bloomfield -- after recording a full day with the organist -- simply split in the middle of the night.
He left Kooper a note on an unused pillow that simply said "Alan - Sorry - Couldn't Sleep." Bloomfield's rampant insomnia, along with the drug abuse, also did him no favors throughout the '70s.
But the music is still there. And this box set stretches from his incredibly deft 1964 audition tapes for producer John Hammond to a 1980 live appearance as a guest of Dylan's. Bloomfield's talent for creating indelible blues and blues-rock is undeniable, and now listeners can hear what Dylan, Clapton and Davis did.
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